TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — Fewer than 100 ocelots survive in the United States, and conservation groups sued the federal government this week to stop it from using lethal traps that could kill or injure the endangered cat, along with the millions of other animals the government kills intentionally each year.
"Ocelots are very rare," Center for Biological Diversity attorney Collette Adkins told Courthouse News. "There are less than 100 in the United States, and we want to make sure that none of these rare cats suffer and die in traps set for bobcats, coyotes and other predators targeted by Wildlife Services."
The sleek, dappled wildcat — which can weigh up to 35 lbs. and stretch up to 4 feet in length — roams Arizona and Texas. It's also found in Mexico and in Central and South America.
Adkins' group and the Animal Welfare Institute sued the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday in Federal Court.
Fish and Wildlife warned in 2010 that lethal traps could harm the ocelot. Since then, Adkins said, at least five ocelots have been spotted in southern Arizona's Huachuca and Santa Rita mountains, though no documentation shows that any have been snared by traps.
However, Adkins said, the center learned through a freedom of information request that traps are indeed being set up in areas where ocelots prowl. The lawsuit seeks to stop that.
It also accuses the two agencies of failing to consult with each other on risks posed to endangered species during activities to control animal populations.
APHIS and its predecessors perform a welter of duties, including trapping and killing wildlife, particularly in the West. In fiscal year 2015 alone, APHIS reported that it killed more than 3.2 million animals, including 68,905 coyotes, 450 black bears, 731 bobcats, 284 mountain lions, 3,437 foxes, 492 river otters, 385 gray wolves and 16,907 mourning doves, according to the complaint.
It continues: "APHIS-Wildlife Services also has unintentionally killed thousands of nontarget species, undermining state and federal efforts to conserve and recover the affected species — which, oftentimes, need protection in part due to APHIS-Wildlife Services' historic and ongoing practices."
Animals are killed by poisoning, leghold traps, snares, cage traps and other methods. The lawsuit particularly objects to leghold traps and snares, as ocelots often hunt by following game trails, where they could be trapped by bone-crushing foot and leg traps.
A Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. A spokesman for Fish and Wildlife could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Animal Welfare Institute attorney Tara Zuardo had a few words to say, though.
"The ocelot population is crumbling at the feet of Wildlife Services' indiscriminate and haphazard wildlife-killing activities," Zuardo said in a statement. "With this lawsuit, we are sending a message to Wildlife Services that its tactics should not come at the expense of the future of this critically endangered species."
The groups say the federal agencies are violating the Endangered Species Act, which has protected ocelots since 1982.
"The essence of our legal claims is that we just need these agencies to take another look and redo the environmental analysis because the last time they worked together to set up protections was in 2010," Adkins said in an interview. "And since then, there's so much more information," particularly from Arizona. "The Santa Ritas and Huachuca Mountains weren't even considered back then," she said.
Loss of habitat to residential construction is a major reason for a decline in the ocelot population. A planned 28,000-home development this year in the small town of Benson, in southeast Arizona, caused an uproar from groups that said it would destroy the nearby San Pedro River and the wildlife around it, including the ocelot. The project, which was legally challenged by conservationists, is on hold while federal agencies assess its environmental impact.
The plaintiffs want the defendants enjoined from continuing their Wildlife Damage Management Program unless and until they comply with the Endangered Species Act and its implementing regulations and the National Environmental Policy Act.
APHIS is a branch of the Department of Agriculture and Fish and Wildlife is under the Department of the Interior, so interagency consultation is necessary.